Whether you’re graduating from academia to applied practice, or transitioning from one job to another, evaluating a new role is a tough decision. If you’re in a position to choose between different roles, don’t take that for granted. Your skills are in demand and you can be selective. Even if you’re only talking with one company, you’ll need to tease apart the inner workings of the team and the potential fit between you, your manager, and your colleagues. Sometimes these decisions don’t require much thought at all—maybe you’re joining a team you know at an org you respect with a salary you’re happy with. For the other 99% of situations, consider your choices carefully.
Your choice is more than a vector of salary, benefits, and location. You also have to weigh your personal values against the mission of the organization. If you personally value a well-informed public, but that runs counter to the organization’s goal of disseminating any and all information and misinformation so long as the shareholders profit, you’re probably not going to be happy (nor should you be able to sleep at night). If you believe that everyone has a right to privacy, yet the organization’s revenue model relies on monetizing the largest possible set of personal data on every individual, that’s neither a fit nor a role you’ll be proud of (nor should you be). And if your (correct) position is that hate speech, harassment, racism, misogyny, and violent extremism deserve no platform whatsoever, yet the organization’s leadership adheres to a hands-off, technolibertarian philosophy, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.
You’ll also want to interrogate and weigh the research opportunities before you. Those research opportunities might be the chance to practice a variety of methodologies, including some that are new to you; getting to work with a mentor or team you respect; or the space to go deep on a topic you’re passionate about.
You also might join an organization simply because the act of research itself is the draw, which was the position I was in coming from academia. Humans are endlessly fascinating and complex. Unpacking their routines, purchase behaviors, and consumption habits in service of answering your org’s questions is a rewarding position to be in. For me, email marketing was never a passion. But connecting behavior to design decisions was, and doing so on behalf of Mailchimp—while learning from a UX leader like Aarron Walter—was always exciting.
What’s more, I would not be interested in a role where I was prohibited from sharing my work with the outside world. As a former (and likely future) professor, I look for research lessons I can take from my work and share publicly in writing and talks. The only way we improve our respective research practices is by sharing our work and modeling professional behavior. In considering a role, examine what constraints you’ll be under in sharing your work.
Organizational health and team dynamics
If you’re okay with both the organization and the research opportunities, you’re still not quite out of the woods yet. You still need to vet the work environment, both through a bit of sleuthing and during the interview process.
Look through LinkedIn to get a sense of employee tenure at prospective organizations. I once considered joining an organization but thought better of it when I saw the rapid arrivals and departures of folks in key positions. That type of leadership instability guarantees a bumpy ride and ever-changing mandates. Sites like Glassdoor offer helpful (and gossipy!) reviews of organizations by current and former employees. Two caveats here: first, some orgs ask their new hires to write positive reviews, so the glowing feedback might not be entirely accurate. Second, the negative reviews might come from a vocal minority, like those who were asked to leave involuntarily for legitimate reasons, or those who, through no fault of their own, were part of company-wide layoffs. Reviews can provide useful perspective, but keep in mind that there is more to the story that might be worth probing during interviews.
If you make it to the interview stage, pay careful attention to the process. Note whether the interviewers are following a script (they put some thought into this!) or seemingly winging it (is this indicative of the rigor they apply to other projects?). Pay attention to the specificity of the questions. If you’re a trained or experienced mixed methods researcher, but every question revolves around usability testing, this organization might not have a clear idea of the breadth of user research possibilities, or they might have limited research needs or appetite.
During each interview, be sure you’re allotted time to ask questions. Find out why this specific role materialized, who it reports to, and how the org has worked with researchers in the past. Ask how often the company has changed roadmaps or org structures. And if you get to within 10 minutes of the end of your scheduled time and you haven’t been given an opportunity to ask questions, say so.
Any job vetting process should include time with your potential manager—preferably earlier rather than later so as to avoid wasting everyone’s time. If your slate of interviews doesn’t include this time, demand it. At a minimum, you want to ensure you can develop a rapport. Not everyone communicates the same, and that’s okay. But if you’re someone who needs specificity and your potential manager is very hand-wavy and vague, ask yourself if you think you can bridge this conversational gap. Press your potential manager to articulate her management style or philosophy. Ask her what she’s looking for in a direct report, and how you can best support her. And ask what success for you in this role might look like in three months and six months; a prepared manager has already thought of this and should be able to share.
Some additional questions or prompts that have compelled revealing answers about management style and organizational health include:
- How do you decide what to work on?
- How do you protect the time of someone who reports to you?
- Tell me how you typically check in with your team as a whole, and with your direct reports.
Trust your gut
If the salary is great, the subject matter is fascinating, and your boss is both supportive and smart, but something just seems off, don’t dismiss that feeling—that’s your researcher brain tying together disparate data points and observations from your job search and raising an alarm. Pause and give yourself some time to suss out whether you’re understandably nervous, or if there’s an aspect of the job that you need to explore in greater detail.
Nothing is permanent. While you don’t want to be a serial job switcher, it’s okay to cut your losses if the role you accept and the job you find yourself in differ. Just be sure to understand why the job isn’t right for you so you’re better prepared as you start the job search anew.